Hurricane Gustav: collateral damage

 NEW ORLEANS -- Returning to the apartment after Hurricane Gustav feels like watching a clip of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The air, the stillness and the stark definitions of form make everything almost appear to be black and white. Eerie. There are no people in sight. A car passes every 15-20 minutes. While the city has been abandoned, nature has been quick to re-gain a foothold. I have been gone seven days and the once familiar surroundings resonate with something akin to treachery. Do I need a passport in this alien landscape? Is it safe?Bugs I have never seen before attach to the car window. Insects, like miniature tornadoes, swarm around rotting garbage bags. A gray possum scampers across the parking lot toward the dumpster in broad daylight. Birds lined up on the handrail of the second-floor porch of the apartment. Mostly crows, looking down at me. Unconcerned with my presence. I start to climb the stairs and they shuffle and flutter up as if asking me, “What are you doing here? This belongs to us now.”* * *First things first. I am always intrigued about what gets done in the aftermath of a hurricane. Entering the city, along the shortcuts and back streets---all of the gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants are closed but the giant billboard announcing the Power Ball payoff has been up-dated to $87 million. You can’t find a bag of ice for 10 miles in every direction but somebody climbed up there and updated the bankroll. Who are those guys?* * *Wal-Mart, Winn-Dixie and Piggly Wiggly are still closed but the tamale man has opened his stand on Terry Parkway. Cooking from large pots heated by charcoal, he stirs up a batch of fresh husks. He has three ice chests of beer and soft drinks. Business is good. I order a dozen and get a taste sample. The tamale man wipes his hands on a blue rag, explaining that he never leaves home for a hurricane and ridicules the evacuation effort. “Gustav didn’t have enough wind to blow the powdered sugar off a French Quarter beignet,” the tamale man explains.* * *Poydras Street. Sunday morning. A card-board sign is taped to the clear plastic wall of a bus-stop outside the Super Dome: “We ain’t got no lights but we got da Saints.” There it is in one sentence. The spirit of New Orleans spelled out in Magic Marker.* * *Grab your ATM debit card and what cash is on hand and hope for the best. The cost of evacuating a family from the path of a hurricane can exceed its monthly income. The longer you wait (for certainty of the direction and strength of the storm) the farther away are the available hotel rooms. Little Rock, Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee were landing areas for those who evacuated from New Orleans on Sunday, August 31st. Twenty hours in traffic. High gas prices. Eating at fast food restaurants for every meal. Motels off the Interstate that don’t have swimming pools. Eight to a room. Then you get home to spoiled food in the refrigerator, no electrical power and job uncertainty. Do the math. It’s a budget buster.* * *The economy during, and after, a hurricane is like walking on a waterbed. Push down on one spot and another spot bulges up to the top. The collective psyche after Hurricane Gustav is that nobody wants to go through the protracted evacuation turmoil again. How to market the suffering? A hot commodity surfaces that everybody suddenly has to get their hands on. The lines at Home Depot of people wanting to buy home generators and satellite radios are longer than the lines at the Convention Center for food stamps. The sentiment of “never again.”* * *Collateral damage. Closer to home. You can measure wind velocity and storm surge but there is no calibration device for accumulated stress. Gustav is the first hurricane where I actually know one of the causalities. I get an e-mail from my administrative assistant at work. Darlene’s mother died during the evacuation. In transit from a nursing home to a facility in Jackson, Mississippi---she passed away. Kidneys, de-hydration, the stress package of the elderly pulling out and away from their routines.It’s getting to me as well. A lingering sadness. I hear on the radio that several thousand evacuees were bused to warehouses around the state. Now they are returning but there are logistical mistakes in transport of their luggage and belongings. A radio announcement reaches out to them that they come pick through the pile at the bus station.A local urban myth joke is becoming popular. It spins off the image of crime, poverty, a broken educational system and the long-standing tradition of corrupt government officials in New Orleans. It goes something like this: “New Orleans is no longer the worst city in America but the best city in the Caribbean.”* * *Waiting to exhale. The consensus exhilaration around the city and state is that the levees held. What a crock of shit. The levees were not tested. Gustav was a weak Category 2 storm that came in west of New Orleans. The levees in New Orleans East at the Industrial Canal were topped with surge water coming over the top. Had Gustav been a Category 3 (or higher) and came up river on a northerly track those precious inches would have been measured in feet.* * *I drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was gone. Persistent for the last two decades, the environmentalists have been sounding the alarm for our disappearing wetlands due south of New Orleans. Without the wetlands as a buffer to the rising tidal surge, the West Bank of New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen. The marsh, trees and vegetation have been disappearing at a rate where maps of the area are useless. Canals and marked waterways have given way to just vast expanse of seawater. Hurricane Katrina did extensive damage to the wetlands and now Gustav has delivered another sucker punch to the solar plexus. What is left out there? How long will it be before I make a cup of coffee, go out and stand on the porch and see the Gulf of Mexico in my back yard?* * *Each storm has a lesson. What can Gustav teach me? Without power at my apartment, I stay with a Vietnamese family. Their demeanor, response and behavior is in obvious contrast to other segments of the community. The Vietnamese people I am with have mastered the art of patience. They know how to sit through discomfort. They know how to wait.You can see it in their faces and how they get though the day. Neighbors, friends and extended family share resources of ice, food and water. It’s an informal network of supplies. They cook over butane gas stoves in the back yard and take naps in a hammock. There is no tense or hard edginess that we will not be able to watch Judge Judy or the Oprah Winfrey Show on the afternoon television.Acceptance takes on a new meaning with these people. It borders on affirmation. A way of saying “yes” to the moment. No need to run around and point fingers of blame. Have a cold beer. There is a breeze under the tree. No big deal. Conditions change. The lights will go on any minute now. Just sit through it. No need to take something like a storm personal.